It felt like old times.
There were more than 900 people in the room — granted, it’s a very big room — and we were nearly all maskless.
It was the Sinai dinner.
There’s irony in that, isn’t there? The Sinai Schools are for students with a wide range of developmental disabilities, the kinds of conditions that sometimes are virtually undetectable outside a schoolroom but often mark a child as different almost immediately.
Such conditions used to embarrass parents, who would hide their children away. And it often could be hard to educate those children; the standard pedagogical approaches that worked for most children (arguably worked poorly for most of them, but that’s another issue entirely) just did not work for those kids, who have come to be labeled, carefully, as having special needs. (They’ve been called other things as well, crude, hurtful things.)
But somehow that’s all different now; it’s changed to the point that nearly one thousand people dressed up and came out to support Sinai and its kids. And their support takes so many forms — it’s financial, because it takes money to run a school, and it’s emotional, because it takes feeling to teach.
Every Sinai dinner includes a documentary made by professional filmmakers under the direction of the school’s communications director, Abigail Hepner Gross, and its managing director, Sam Fishman. Every year, it tells the story of one student, with the combination of hope and honesty that is the school’s hallmark; every year, it makes most of us cry.
This year’s film, “Finding Her Voice,” was about Racheli Friedbauer and her parents, Levi and Jill. Racheli has a rare genetic condition about which little is known; her need for special education became clear fairly early.
At first, Racheli went to a specialized public school. Because she was quiet, she was overlooked; because most of the other kids in her classes were noisier, their needs were more obvious. Because the teachers seemed to be under-resourced and overwhelmed, she was neglected.
Her parents decided to send her to Sinai.
When she first got to Sinai, this little girl, visually impossible to ignore with her bright hair and blue glasses, suffered from selective mutism. Because there had been no point in her talking in school until now, she simply didn’t.
This is where the film shows Sinai’s secret.
Part of it is the specialized training that allows teachers to know how best to reach a child. Cutting-edge pedagogy matters, and Sinai has it.
But before that pedagogy can be deployed, the teachers must have extraordinary patience. They have to be able to wait for a child until she’s ready, until she’s able to trust, until she’s decided to engage.
That looks like a superhuman task at times, but Sinai’s teachers manage it.
And it’s clear that there’s something that underlies and buttresses their patience.
That’s love. Pure love. Love and patience and training and understanding — what child wouldn’t benefit from that? Any child — any person, really — from the most impaired to the apparently most perfect (although there’s no such thing as a perfect child, and even the most academically and emotionally and behaviorally gifted children sometimes do what they’re not supposed to do. That’s what makes them children, not automatons) will flourish when she’s taught with patience, close attention, and love.
The film — which you can find and watch on Sinai’s website, sinaischools.org — shows how Racheli went from being silent to whispering to laughing loudly and contagiously to talking. In fact, once she found her voice, it was so loud that she had to learn to modulate it.
After the program, standing by the dessert tables, I met Ari and Feigy Leiter, whose son Binyamin had been the subject of another Sinai film, “Sweet Boy,” a few years ago. Binyamin had been very angry at the beginning of that documentary, just before the start of his years at Sinai. I remembered the rage in his face back then as I talked to his father; I also remembered how he had overcome the rage when he was met with patience, attention, and love at his new school. Sinai, of course.
Binyamin’s going into his senior year at a regular yeshiva now, his parents said. Sinai worked for him. It gave him a path toward a life filled not with anger but with joy.
Sinai’s premise is that all children, no matter what their needs, deserve an education tailored to help them learn and grow, and that all Jewish children whose parents want them to have a Jewish education deserve that Jewish education, tailored for them. It should be their birthright.
Sinai’s education is expensive, but the school works hard to ensure that no child whom it can help is turned away because it’s unaffordable. That takes work. It takes major fundraising. That’s one of the reasons it’s so good that it could resume its dinner this year.
Another reason is stigma-fighting. People from across the Jewish community support Sinai, and the more mainstream — cross-stream, really — the idea of supporting it becomes, the more the stigma is diminished.
We are proud to do whatever we can to help in that holy task.